The PDP formerly styled itself as the “largest party in Africa”. Now, after Nigeria’s historic 2015 elections, it’s only the largest party in the two smallest regions of the country. analyses why the PDP lost and looks to how it can regroup.
The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) dominated Nigerian politics after the return to civilian government in 1999. It won every presidential election by a landslide, had the majority of powerful state governors in its camp, and comfortable majorities in both houses of the National Assembly. If you wanted to be in politics, PDP was likely the best vehicle.
This year’s elections saw a dramatic turnaround in the party’s fortunes. It lost the presidency, is the minority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate and now only holds 13 of the 36 state governorships. Analysis has tended to focus on how the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) won, “How Buhari won”), but this article will take a look from the other end of the telescope, to ask how the PDP lost.
The PDP made a number of substantial errors while in government that contributed to the party’s eventual loss at the polls. First, the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan had an appalling communications team. The administration’s inability to react quickly or reasonably to enormous national issues, especially the removal of the fuel subsidy and Boko Haram, undermined its competency. The communication failures also meant that successes were insufficiently or cack-handedly presented to the Nigerian public.
Second, Jonathan and the clique around him, including then-PDP chairman Bamanga Tukur, actively aided the development of the APC. This was not their intention but by not dealing with grievances within the party and having such a small and insular kitchen cabinet, powerful interests within the party were alienated. This management style helped push senior PDP figures, like former Vice President Atiku Abubakar of Adamawa state, Kano Governor Rabiu Kwanwaso and Kwara Central Senator and former Governor Abubakar Bukola Saraki, out of the party and into the APC. It is not surprising that these three men’s States provided the APC with some of the best results and most remarkable defeats for PDP.
Under Nigeria’s electoral system, to win in the first round of voting candidates must receive the most votes overall and 25% of the vote in at least 24 states. Buhari achieved at least 25% in 26 states, Jonathan in 25.
The PDP campaign was poorly run. PDP messaging was inconsistent as a multiplicity of decentralised campaigns competed for attention. The APC, in contrast, repeated its simple message of “Change” over and over again.
The PDP campaign placed an over-reliance on four factors: money, ethnic politics in the Middle Belt, personal support for defectors to the PDP, and the incapacity of the Independent National Electoral Commission. The PDP enormously outspent the APC, but its full spectrum dominance of media advertising and advertorials looked over the top and failed to win over sufficient voters.
The PDP had previously received the support of Christian ethnic minorities in much of the Middle Belt. The PDP sought to mobilise this vote again by suggesting that APC presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Fulani Muslim, wanted to “Islamise” Nigeria and even suggesting that southern Kaduna, which has a large Christian population, could form its own state called Gwara. Voters appear to have rejected this appeal to religion, rejecting the PDP instead because of poor governance. Aggregating the four sets of elections that took place (President, House of Representatives, Senate, Governor), three North Central states that previously leaned PDP: Nasarawa, Kogi and Benue: went to APC. Buhari won Kogi in the presidential election on an enormous 37% swing. Only Kwara, also in North Central but with different electoral dynamics due to Saraki’s power in the state, swung more heavily to the APC. Overall, the North Central region, which comprising almost all of the ethnically and religiously mixed Middle Belt, had the largest swing to the APC in the presidential election with 20.5%.
Swing is the average vote share that has changed hands between the parties. A swing of 10% to APC means that on average, the APC vote has increased 10% and PDP decreased 10%.
After defections to the APC from PDP in 2013 and 2014, the PDP set about getting its own floor crossers. Its four most high-profile defectors failed to deliver anything of substance to the PDP and may have even backfired. In Ondo, in the South West, Governor Olusegun Mimiko left the Labour Party for PDP in 2014. In the presidential elections, the state swung massively to APC by 34%, the third highest in the country. Former governor of Borno Ali Modu Sheriff defected from APC to PDP also in 2014 and was set to contest a Senate seat for his new party. He didn’t and didn’t bring many votes to the ruling party either – PDP failed to get near 25% in either the Presidential or Governorship elections in the state and APC won all three Senate seats and all ten House of Representatives seats. PDP also managed to get two of Jonathan’s opponents at the 2011 presidential elections to come across to PDP from APC. Ibrahim Shekarau, former governor of Kano, was made education minister. Results in Kano were similar to those in Borno, but matter more as Kano has the second most voters in the country after Lagos. Nuhu Ribadu became the PDP’s candidate to become governor of Adamawa. PDP held the state going into the elections. Ribadu was humiliated being beaten by not only the victorious APC but also the minor Social Democratic Party.
Governorship results. APC (red) now control 22 states, PDP (blue) 13, APGA (purple) 1. Abuja doesn’t elect a governor. * denotes no election in 2015.
INEC introduced biometric Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs) for these elections. Initially, before the six-week postponement from the original 14 February presidential election date, their introduction was a disaster as INEC’s logistical capabilities failed to get the cards to all registered voters. As the 28 March election day approached, the PDP tried to undermine the PVC system. Three days before the election, PDP spokesman Femi Fani-Kayode called for the arrest of Sani Musa, whose company printed the PVCs. According to the PDP, Musa was an APC supporter and part of a plot to fix the election. An impartial onlooker might suggest that the PDP was trying to undermine the credibility of the PVC system entirely. Many observers expected a large number PVC card readers to break down on election day, causing relative chaos and providing an opportunity for parties on the ground to artificially increase their vote counts. But 99.7% of the card readers worked, and 96% of polling units did not have to issue any Temporary Voter Cards.
The effectiveness of the PVC system had an enormous effect on the official turnout figures in the PDP heartlands of the South-South and South East. In 2011, Jonathan had not only won both regions by a massive percentage margin but also on a much higher turnout than the rest of the country. In 2015, Jonathan still beat Buhari by a jumbo landslide in both regions in percentage terms (90% to 8% in the former and 88% to 7% in the later). However, in absolute terms the margin of victory was smaller as official turnout was down 11% in the South-South and a whopping 30% in the South East. It would appear that the PVCs prevented an artificial inflation of the PDP’s vote count in some of its core areas. If turnout in both zones had been in line with 2011’s 67%, Jonathan’s 2.6 million vote defeat would become a 500,000 vote victory, depending on how one does the calculation.
APC took a majority in the House of Representatives with 208 seats to the PDP’s 132. Other parties won 8 seats and 12 results are unconfirmed.
Where now for the PDP?
Even after the failures of 2013 and 2014, the PDP could have won the 2015 elections. As well generally improving government performance and communication, the party could have done more in three critical areas to win. Firstly, they could have more effectively exploited the fissures within the APC. As a coalition of divergent interests, the PDP could have picked at the seams of the APC more efficiently. A large number of APC defections during the election campaign could have undermined the party’s campaign.
Secondly, the incumbent administration could have made much more out of its successes against Boko Haram during the postponement period. The party did trumpet the achievements but due to the polycentric nature of the PDP campaign, this message was often contradictory or confused. Jonathan could have much more effectively closed the perception of competency gap on Boko Haram, a significant election issue.
Thirdly, the PDP could have done more to undermine the PVC system. Rather than using just security in the North East as the excuse for February’s postponement, they should have focused on INEC’s failure to distribute PVCs to voters. This approach could have lowered INEC credibility and helped the party and its proxies exert greater pressure on the electoral commission in the run up to and during the polls.
Clearly, these three options will not be available to the party come 2019. The PDP’s “power of incumbency” was likely to be a significant factor if it had won. The party now has to realise why it lost and that its loss was not a conspiracy. The APC did not win a rigging contest. It won an election.
Next, the PDP needs to assert its future as a national party, not a regional party of the South-South and the South East. These two zones are a strong base to build on but can never deliver a majority without also winning at least one of the South West and North Central.
APC took a majority in the Senate with 60 seats to the PDP’s 49.
Indeed, the official results of the 2015 presidential elections may flatter the PDP. According to data from Transition Monitoring Group (TMG), the most advanced election-monitoring organisation in the country, which produced a Quick Count using official results announced at polling units, Buhari’s margin of victory was larger than INEC’s official figures.
Rather than the official 54 to 45% margin, the Quick Count estimated, with a +/-2.3% margin of error, that Buhari really received 59% of the vote to Jonathan’s 39%.
The discrepancy is due to turnout figures in the South-South. TMG had observed turnouts in the region of 41%, broadly in line with the national average; the official figure was 56%. The implication is that turnout was artificially inflated to boost Jonathan’s vote count. According to TMG’s data, this appears only to have occurred in Rivers, Delta, Bayelsa and Akwa Ibom states in the zone and not in Edo and Cross River.
As an opposition party in 2019, the PDP will be less able to benefit from these differentials in polling unit turnout and post-collation turnout. This loss of incumbency is the essence of the PDP’s challenge – changing from a franchise party for the purposes of achieving power, to an active, programmatic opposition party.
If the party takes these lessons on board, doesn’t disintegrate and clearly articulates its purpose and political values to the electorate, 2015 could be a high water make for the APC. The PDP looks like it has been pushed back to a core vote, which should be relatively inaccessible to the APC. The PDP meanwhile, if it presents a compelling case, has reasonable presence to build on in a number of states that the APC won on aggregate this year: Benue, Gombe, Ondo, Kogi, Nasarawa (see map below).
Map of party strength after aggregating results from the most recent elections for President, Senate, House of Representatives, and Governor. Red indicates an APC state, Blue a PDP state, Purple is a tie. The darker the colour, the more emphatic the party’s victory in that state.
The PDP has taken a battering in these elections. It has been thoroughly outplayed by a more modern, sophisticated electoral organisation that points to a positive development in Nigeria’s governance. For this success to be institutionalised, the PDP needs to take the next step and not allow the APC to develop into a political franchise that exists predominantly to rule, rather than to implement its agenda. To do so, the PDP will need to look beyond the politics of patronage and sectional interests, although this will continue to have a role, and seek to represent those excluded from, disappointed by, or negatively affected by the APC government. The APC built a varied constituency to win. The PDP must copy them.
If they do, all Nigerians will benefit. As the successful 2015 elections demonstrated, two effective national parties are better than one.